Looking to the stars, and seeing nothing


Following directions on the map we were emailed the previous day, we make our way to the Morshead Fountain Gate at The Royal Botanic Garden.

A shortish guard wearing a fluro vest and woollen beanie stands behind the wrought iron with a look across his face saying “Thou shall not pass!”

“Um, hi, um, we’re here for the astronomy class,” I awkwardly state, half guessing if that’s why we’ve actually ventured out on a Monday night after a long day at work.

He looks us up and down before giving a slight nod and telling us to follow the lights down the path. I feel like a character in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

As he closes the gate back behind us, I contemplate running off into the pitch black to see what might happen, only to remember the promise of mulled wine and snack food at the end of the dimly lit trail ahead.

It’s 5.50pm as we enter the ring of The Calyx. Another shortish guard in a high-vis vest approaches us to say in an annoyed voice that we’ve arrived too early and we’ll just have to wait until 6pm until we can go into the building itself.

An odd-shaped design, The Calyx is named so after the sepals of a flower. The building itself is a circular whorl of both an indoor and outdoor space representing the petals and forms of a flower in bud. I think.

I think we were being told to stay outside the petals.

Another couple already waiting look like they’re not sure what part of the metaphorical petals they are allowed to enter either. Well and truly into winter now, I’m not overly impressed.

As the clock ticks over to 6.00 and more people arrive, surly guard number two tells us we can finally enter the warmth of the indoors. We’re instructed to go through what looks like the main doors where two women are stuffing around. Surly guard then instructs us to enter through another set of doors. As we approach these set of doors one of the women stuffing around shuts the doors in front of us and tells us to enter through the original doors we were blocked from.

Now I’m really not impressed.

I give her the ‘really?’ look, before complying.

Where’s this mulled wine?

I saw the event pop up on my Facebook feed a few weeks back and thought this could be a fun way to spend a cold Monday evening.

On booking the two tickets for my hubby and myself I receive an email saying:

Thank you for booking Astronomy at The Calyx

We’re looking forward to welcoming you to The Royal Botanic Garden on Monday 19 June at 6.30pm…

Morshead Fountain Gate will be open for entry from 6pm…

Once inside the garden gates, please follow the lights to The Calyx and present your ticket to receive your token for a complimentary glass of mulled wine or cider.

At the very least I want my mulled wine.

A lone man stands behind the counter frantically trying to fill a grid of empty wine glasses while several women stand about watching him. No mulled wine or cider as yet but there is regular wine and I am done with waiting.

We pick at a container of over-priced spiced nuts as people make their way into the main seating area where our presenter for the evening is frantically trying to fix screen number seven of nine mounted on the wall behind him. He has no luck.

Hubby and I look at each other and begin laughing with complete empathy for this poor guy who clearly didn’t know what he was getting himself into.

6.30 rolls past, then 6.45, and the seventh screen remains black. The room in now full with a mix of people who are either fascinated by space or lured to the event by the promise of free booze.

I am a mix of both.

I hope the seventh screen won’t conceal too much information in its blackness during the presentation.

Hubby goes to grab another drink and comes back armed with stories of the stressed out man behind the counter, who is now stressing out the guests because they can’t remember if they are the ones who ordered the sliders he is trying to off-load.

Half an hour after I was expecting the event to begin, the unorganised door lady grabs a mic.

“We hoped we’d be looking at some stars tonight,” she awkwardly laughs.

“We hoped.”

The overcast skies of the evening mean there’s not a great chance of seeing anything through the small telescopes they’ve set up to look through after the lecture.

“Good news is that the stars are still there.”

Well, at least she has a sense of humour.

Dr. Ángel R. López-Sánchez is introduced to the group.

Awkward door lady jokes about not being able to pronounce his Spanish name correctly. An astronomer and science communicator at the Australian Astronomical Observatory, Dr Ángel takes the mic and hooks us immediately.

He teaches us about star colours and sizes in relation to their heat and age, then has a laugh about how astronomers find hot and cold taps confusing as a result.

I look over to hubby who I can see has developed a bit of a man crush.

Dr Ángel’s passion is palpable and infectious. I miss random words as he waves his mic from left to right as a result of his enthusiasm of gasses and nebulas and dwarf planets. Oh my.

He tells the story of how he cried when he arrived in Australia 10 years ago and saw the Milky Way with his bare eyes for the first time with no telescope. He exclaims we don’t know how lucky we are to be able to view this in our country.

I want to stand to tell him how I cried the first time I saw the Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona two years ago after walking the first 77 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago over a three day period. I had never seen anything like it. They don’t know how lucky they are to be surrounded by such history.

But I don’t say a thing.

I just sit with a big grin on my face, absorbing his love of Saturn’s rings and the potential to find life on one of Jupiter’s moons.

The last animation he is about to screen he states is best viewed in complete darkness.

He politely asks awkward door lady and her helper to turn off the lights.

A few minutes pass and the lights are turned up even brighter.

He laughs and says over the mic “This is a great animation, I hope we can see it with all this light.” Do I see an eye starting to twitch?

The lights are turned off for a brief moment, then turned back on mid-animation.

He politely asks again for the lights to be turned off. Everything is feeling very Monty Python-esk.

They are turned off for the last moments of the animation showing our galaxy and beyond twirling and expanding across the eight of nine screens.

“Wanna blow this joint?” I say to hubby.

We applaud as loud a we can to show Dr Ángel just how truly amazing we thought he was, before sneaking past the telescopes outside and heading to the Opera Bar for another wine and some food.

Above the waters of the world’s most beautiful harbour, through a cloudy sky, we see a faint hint of the stars.



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